Tom Gualtieri on the origins of his sexuality.
Back in the day when the television season began in the fall, when I dreaded Sunday nights because it meant there would be school the next day, I had one thing to look forward to at the end of the weekend: new episodes of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries. Every Sunday night. The show lasted a few years, a few cast changes and a failed overhaul back in the 70’s, when my developing sexuality was still a mystery, when I was still a child. Somewhere between Pamela Sue Martin as Nancy Drew and Parker Stevenson as Frank Hardy, my pre-adolescent hormones got switched on.
My developing sexuality was a mystery to me because it had never been acknowledged. My parents aren’t to blame for that; our society simply doesn’t want to know that children experience desire. In our America where even breastfeeding is a point of controversy, mention of “sex” and “child” in the same sentence is a Pandora’s Box. Even though the stages of sexual development are well-documented, we are still without language to discuss a subject as natural as childbirth. In the age of the internet we may not need to explain the mechanics of the birds and the bees but we still need to talk about sex with our children— probably at a younger age than in I was 1977, when I was still feeling my way around. I’m imagining my father having to explain not only the birds and the bees but the birds and the birds.
My mother had always been liberal. She bought me a Barbie doll when I asked for it. I had Barbie, Ken and GI Joe. What, you’re asking, does this have to do with Parker Stevenson? See, Barbie used to go off and sing at the nightclub while Ken and GI Joe stayed at home. I used to take their clothes off and force them to 69. Was that abusive? I was six years old. Even though I didn’t know—I knew. I wanted something like this to happen with “Frank Hardy.” I didn’t knew the mechanics—I made it up. Yes, I knew there was dating. I knew there was dinner then dessert. Then some kissing. I knew something happened that you weren’t supposed to talk about “around the kids.” And I knew that when I thought about Parker Stevenson there was a quiver of feeling in the place you’re only aware of on roller coasters.
Before I was seven I was playing doctor, looking down the pants of my friends’ dolls and trying to catch a glimpse of my adult, male cousins naked when we changed for the swimming pool. As children, we don’t know what we desire, what it means or that it can grow into something beautiful or destructive or both. We merely feel the pull of our animal brains, a combination painful, strange and wondrous. I was, to be explicit, having sexual feelings that I didn’t understand.
In my activist work, I spend a good deal of time on parenting sites. A mother at one of these wrote about her concerns when she “walked in on [her] five-year-old son and three-year-old granddaughter with their clothing off.” As she put it, she was “devastated.” Later, she recounted, a Godaddy.com commercial caused her son to lean over and whisper, “that girl just made my pee pee get a little hard.” The irate mother posted, “That girl he saw on that commercial was the reason for an erection. Is this normal? At five years old?” Why yes, actually, it is. According to the late Loretta Haroian, Ph.D., the first stage of childhood, sexual development “from birth to approximately six years of age” is distinguished by “sexual interests, curiosity, arousal and behavior … spontaneously expressed unless or until the child is taught to repress or inhibit her/his pleasure orientation.”
That explains what I was doing with Ken and GI Joe.
By the time my father explained the rules of the game, using a book called Where Did I Come From by Peter Mayle (A Year in Provence) and illustrated by Arthur Robins, I was beyond Ken, GI Joe and Parker Stevenson. I had already been many times through the Playboy and Hustler magazines hidden in Dad’s nightstand. When I was alone in the house I would search Hustler for the occasional flash of penis. There was also an issue of Playboy with an ad for The Museum of Natural History. There was a picture of a naked man looking at some primates. The model was mostly in shadow but you could see his penis. And he had that hot, slightly furry, 70’s body. I was aware that my parts didn’t look like the Museum model’s, nor like my Dad’s, nor like my grown cousins’, but that someday I’d have hair and all the other stuff I thought made a man a man.
Once I understood what my body could do, those vague longings got specific. Then came Clash of the Titans starring Harry Hamlin’s nipples. And those lips! I watched that movie over and over hoping his Greek costume would fall off or that there would be a scene with him taking a shower. (There was always male nudity in shower scenes when I was a kid.) But no matter how many times I watched it, Hamlin didn’t get naked. The night I caught Making Love on HBO, however, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. By then I was well into puberty. (In those days it took a couple of years for a movie to go from the cinema to cable.) Even my liberal mother would have been shocked if she knew why I was sneaking into the other room, watching the small TV with the extra cable subscription… Harry Hamlin kissing another man with those lips! Those lips! Those lips!
As an adult, I very nearly understand how my sexuality involves the love that’s been studied and mapped in the brain by science. It’s sometimes difficult to make my lovers understand that the more I feel in love, the more I want to make love, and so begins a cycle. Biologically, when we make love, we feel more in love so when it’s good it’s a joyful circle. The dark side of that is obsession. Science is still studying the mystery—the tremor which sets off the need to cuddle and whatever else might follow the cuddling. As a kid, I felt this too, I just didn’t know the mechanics.
Now I know what comes after the dessert. Parker, are you listening?
Tom Gualtieri is a theatre artist with his hand in many disciplines: lyricist, playwright, performer, director, knitter. He maintains an ongoing collaboration with composer David Sisco. His solo play, That Play: A Solo Macbeth, was nominated for a 2013 Drama Desk Award.